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History for Sale

Today Bonhams Auctions in New York is selling off over 300 items from one of the largest private collections of historical emphemera in the world: “Treasures from the Caren Collection. How History Unfolds” includes printed and manuscript items dating from the sixteenth century to the near-present, and every single one represents its moment in an intimate way. That’s the power of paper, and Bonham’s digital catalog–with zoomable images–really brings you into the picture. Even though I had tons of stuff to do yesterday (and it was a sunny spring day), I couldn’t resist perusing the items, including beautiful contemporary prints of the Spanish Armada and Sir Francis Drake, broadsides covering everything from Charles I’s trial to the Great London Fire to the Salem Witch Trials and all the big events of the American Revolution, Civil War daguerreotypes, baseball ephemera, and assorted letters, maps, photographs, tickets and posters from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There are beautiful, touching photographs of Native American chiefs from the later nineteenth century, as well as not-so-beautiful –but equally haunting–images of victims of war and lynching. Lots of little slips of paper that you wouldn’t think would be “historical”, but most definitely are. Below is a sampling of items that appealed to me, but really, I could have put every single lot into this post!

Ephemera at Auction1.

London Burning crop2.

Ephemera at Auction 3-001 3. Balloon and Parachute-0014.

Washington and Lee crop5.

Ephemera at Auction 5-0016.

ephemera at auction 8-001 7

Congress-001 8.

March 1969-001 9.

1. The Spanish Armada, 1588/ 2. The “Deplorable” Fire of London, after 1666/ 3. The first British edition of Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World, 1693/4. Garnerin’s balloon and parachute, 1802/5. Drawing of Generals Washington and Lee by Arathusa Graves, 1802/ 6. Photograph of Corinth, Mississippi in 1862/7. A UFO appearance in 1897/8. What Congress has Done, 1900/9. March on Washington, 1969.

 


Decorative Directions

Samuel Emery (1787-1882) made compasses and other nautical and mathematical instruments here in Salem for more than half a century–both during and after the city’s great age of sail. His work can still be seen today, at auctions and in museums, but most often in museum shops. Recently I stumbled across one, and then another and another, reproduced and transformed into pendants and pins. What made Emery’s compasses so decorative? It’s not the fleur-de-lis marking north–that is traditional from the fourteenth century when French makers used a fancy “T”, resembling a flower, to mark the north wind or Tramontana. The two surveyors’ compasses below are nearly identical and were both made by Salem craftsman: the one on the left by John Jayne and the smaller one on the right by Emery, both sold at Skinner auctions.

Emery label Harvard-001

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Samuel Emery Box Label, Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University.

I’m sure Emery’s instruments were well-made or he wouldn’t have been in business for as long as he was, but his designs look pretty conventional for their time. I suspect that the reason Emery’s compasses are still for sale is the original copper plate in the possession of the Peabody Essex Museum, enabling fresh and adapted impressions and models to be made, as well as the traditional appeal of the compass rose (first in maritime communities, then more broadly), which has emblazoned textiles, pottery, and other decorative accessories for centuries, so why not jewelry–among other things–now?

Compass Rose Brooch PEMCompass Rosette Brooch Morgan

Compass Quilt NE Auctions

Compass Bowl Sunderland V and A

Compass Fabric Better than Jam

Compass Rose brooches from the PEM and Morgan shops (just click on the picture and you’ll get there); Early Connecticut pieced quilt with Mariner’s Compass, Northeast Auctions; Sunderland Pink Lustre bowl, c. 1820-1830, Victoria & Albert Museum; Better than Jam fabric.


Double Faux

For some time I’ve been captivated by a covered cup and saucer in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: the pieces were made by the Niderviller Manufactory in France just before the Revolution but somehow the combination of two illusory design motifs–faux bois and trompe l’oeil–make them seem very modern to me. I love everything about them and want to learn more and see more.

Faux Bois MFA

It was relatively easy to find more faience from the Niderviller Manufactory: below are a plate dated 1774 in a French private collection and another at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, along with a tray and teapot dated the very same year in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Look at the little nail on the teapot, “tacking” the print to its surface–amazing! The Niderviller Factory was a rare pre-revolutionary aristocratic-owned operation situated in the Duchy of Lorraine where it was exempt from French laws protecting the royal monopoly of the Sèvres porcelain factory. Production at Niderviller commenced by 1750, but I seem to like the more whimsical creations of the 1773-93 period when the factory was owned by the Count de Custine. The Minneapolis plate below is signed by “J. Deutsch” which is a rather imprecise name–I wonder if this almost-anonymous artist was responsible for the other trompe l’oeil pieces? The signatures look similar on the Victoria & Albert tray and teapot. Despite the Count de Custine’s sympathy for both the American and French Revolutions, he was guillotined in 1793, but the Niderville Factory survived both the Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars and continues to operate today. Trompe l’oeil decoration was wildly popular in the eighteenth century, but the combination of “wood” and “paper” and ceramics is a little more unusual–though I did find a few more examples beyond Niderviller: an early nineteenth-century plate produced at the Imperial Vienna Porcelain Factory and a very rare “solitaire” set, also made in Vienna. I’m not as taken with these Vienna pieces: they lack the whimsy and detail (folded edges) of the Niderviller pieces.

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Faux Bois Minneapolis 1774

Faux Bois Tray V and A

Faux Bois Teapot V and A

Faux Bois Teapot V and A focus

Faux Bois Vienna Plate c. 1810 Victoria and Albert Museum

Faux Bois Trompe

This faux bois/faux papier decoration doesn’t have to be confined to ceramics, of course: we can and should go back–and forward. Both the faux bois and trompe l’oeil techniques seem to have been perfected in the seventeenth-century paintings of still-life artists like Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts (c. 1630-after 1683) and Edwaert Colyer (or Collier, 1642-1708), which must have influenced the ceramic artists of the next century. The “wooden” background and affixed objects certainly seem very real in the former’s Trompe l’Oeil with Riding Whip and Letter Bag (1872), one of many “paneled” and “cabinet” paintings at the National Gallery of Denmark, and Colyer’s letter racks and “portraits” often have faux bois backgrounds (and folded corners).

Faux Bois Gijsbrechts Riding Whip 1872

Trompe l'Oeil Portrait of a Lady (oil on canvas)

Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil with Riding Whip and Letter Barg, National Gallery of Denmark; Edwaert Colyer, Trompe l’Oeil Portrait of a Lady, Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery.

Both faux bois and trompe l’oeil techniques continue to be expressed and adapted up to the present day, with varying degrees of detail and in various mediums–but combinations are a bit more rare. In the realm of ceramics, I have yet to see anything as appealing as the Niderviller pieces, but I’m always looking. ….so far the closest I’ve come–not too close at all, really—are plates in the “Texquite” pattern from Bongenre, made in that most modern of materials: melanine.

The One Key to It All

Faux Bois Texquite

Otis Kaye (1885-1974), The One Key to It All, 20th Century, Private Collection, photo © Christie’s Images / The Bridgeman Art Library; Melanine plate in the “Texquite” pattern, Bongenre.


Santarella for Sale

One of my favorite hobbies/timekillers is stalking historic houses for sale online. My “territory” used to be exclusively local (so I could hang on to the notion that I was actually searching for a house that I might possibly buy, I suppose) but now my real-estalking knows no bounds. The National Trust for Historic Preservation runs a property sale site that I check in with periodically; yesterday I popped on there and quickly spotted Santarella for sale! Santarella is the ultimate east-coast storybook house, built by the English sculptor Henry Hudson Kitson in the 1920s in the western Massachusetts town of Tyringham. I posted about it a couple of years ago on my way out west. At that time, I hadn’t realized the size of the Santarella compound, which includes not only the storied main house, but several romantic silo structures, a c. 1750 farmhouse, and an absolutely charming English shingle cottage, all on four acres and for $2,590.000. A bargain, I say: if I could make the mortgage (and the commute), I’d snap it right up.

Santarella in snow

Santarella for Sale

Santarella colonial house

Santarella Cottage

Santarella for sale:  the main house in snow and summer, the colonial homestead, and the English cottage.

Even farther from home, several other houses appealed to me particularly on the National Trust site–actually all did, but this post cannot go on forever! My highlights:  the 1763 “Arch House” in Waterford, Virginia (I love 18th century rowhouses, and this one looks unique), “Eagles Nest”, a restored 17th century manor house in a beautiful Virginia setting, a Greek Revival in upstate New York (for under $200,000–in a really charming town), a brick Maryland Federal, and a stunning 1828 brick house in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania which features one of the most beautiful hallways I have ever seen. Obviously I could go on and on: you can check out plantations, churches, rectories, banks, taverns, hotels, a “whiskey bonding barn”, the site of Edgar Allen Poe’s honeymoon “suite”, and save an imperiled Connecticut saltbox/gambrel from pending demolition.

RE Arch House

RE Eagles Nest

RE Eagles Next Hall

RE Cambridge Greek Revival

RE DAVIS House

RE Davis House detail

Re Gilded Arch Hall

From top: the Arch House in Waterford, Virginia; “Eagles Nest” exterior and front hallway/staircase; Cambridge, New York Greek Revival; the Davis House in Clarksburg, Maryland: exterior and architectural detail; front hall of the 1828 Harriet Lane House in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. All listings at the National Trust; another site to check out for Mid-Atlantic historic homes is the Historic Homes Network. For New England: Antique Homes Magazine.


New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day is generally and literally about dismantling for me: taking down the elaborate holiday displays I assembled only weeks before on my eight fireplace mantels and all of the other decorations around the house. The tree is relatively easy compared to everything else, frankly, and as I write it’s out on the sidewalk awaiting its transport to Dead Horse Beach for the annual Christmas Tree bonfire this weekend. I’m an habitual seasonal decorator but now I’m wondering if I should reign in this instinct a bit….that’s certainly an attainable New Year’s resolution! In between bouts of dismantling I wasted copious amounts of time browsing the web for the perfect 2014 datebook because the one I bought at Target the other day is so devoid of any aesthetic whimsy that I fear I will not use it, and I need to: this is another area where my life has changed since becoming chair of my department–I now need to keep track of everyone’s dates and not just my own. As usual, I had Turner Classic Movies on in the background, and several movies distracted me from my dismantling mission as well, most notably the original (1968) Thomas Crown Affair. I had to figure out exactly where Steve McQueen lived on Beacon Hill in Boston (85 Mount Vernon Street–the 2nd Harrison Gray Otis house!!!) and examine each one of Faye Dunaway’s amazing outfits. And then, of course, I had to keep checking the weather reports as we have a big snowstorm bearing down on us: it looks like I will have several days inside to come up with some new displays for my mantels.

A day in the life: outside my bedroom window, the calm before the storm; a Christmas mantel before its dismantling; I love these little fabric trees from Quietude Quilts so I’m going to keep them up for a while; great Christmas presents: Wanderlust plates made in Rhode Island; Jessica Hische pocket planner; 85 Mount Vernon Street, Boston.

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Scarlet Spirit

Well, the year is rapidly coming to an end, so I guess I’ll have to move on from my current obsession with ancient esoteric beverages. But first, one last drink for New Year’s Eve: alchermes (alternatively spelled alkermes), a scarlet red cordial with origins that are medieval, middle eastern, and medicinal. I was looking for something colorful to mix with champagne, and came up with this mysterious red elixir, although I doubt I’ll be able to find a bottle. Today, its most common use is in Italian pastries and the Italian variation on trifle, zuppa Inglese, but in the Renaissance it evolved from a herbal tonic for the heart to a secretive and fashionable cordial under the patronage of the Medici family in general and Catherine de’ Medici in particular, who introduced it to the court of France when she married the future King Henri II in 1533. Alchermes derived its name and its color from its most exotic ingredient, a tiny parasitic bug named kermes, which was later replaced by another red bug, cochineal. The presence of insects (along with gold leaf, crushed pearl, and ambergris) in the elixir doesn’t seem to have been too objectionable before the twentieth century, but thereafter artificial ingredients were substituted (I think). The venerable Dominican Santa Maria de Novella pharmacy is a major producer of Alchermes, which has been recognized and registered as a “traditional product” of Tuscany.

Alchermes 2 red elixir BL 15th C border

Alchermes Catherine Francois Clouet 1560 border

Alchermes V and A border

Alkermes SMN border 2

British Library Sloane MS 2560, central Europe, 15th century: an alchemical treatise illustrating the red elixir, a king or rosa rubea (red rose); Catherine de’ Medici, Queen Consort of France, as a new widow in 1560 by François Clouet; an 18th century pharmacy jar from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum; a bottle of Alkermes from the Santa Maria de Novella pharmacy.


Books for my Break

The break between the fall and spring semesters used to be one of my favorite times of the year; now that I am Chair it won’t be quite as long or restful. When you’re a professor, you think about your courses a bit and write up the syllabi, but this January I’ll be doing transfer evaluations, a bit of scheduling, advising, meetings, correspondence, and planning for the semester to come. Woe is me! Nevertheless, there’s still time for some reading so I have assembled my year’s end list of books. I probably won’t get through all of these but they’ll sit by my bed all year long and put me to sleep (no slight to the book; I fall asleep almost instantaneously and very forcefully). As usual, it’s a list (exclusively) dominated by nonfiction, and the first two BIG books will probably take me through most of the year: the first volume of Victoria Wilson’s Barbara Stanwyck biography (I’m a huge Barbara Stanwyck fan) and the recently-updated Field Guide to American Houses. The latter probably won’t leave my bedside for years to come–in fact, I should probably buy two copies of the latter, one for my bedside and the other for the car.

Barbara-Stanwyck-cover

Books field guide border

Two popular histories/biographies of gilded-age people on either side of the Atlantic (and around the world): I see a lot of parallels between Prince Edward and Prince Charles (though not the playboy characterization).

PicMonkey Collage

Fauna and Flora, past, present, future:

Book Barely Imagined Beings

Books for my break

I’m not really a cook or a foodie, but I do like reading about food: its production, its history, its role as a cultural force. Of all the food books that came out in this past year, these two titles appeal to me the most: one is quite specific and narrative in its approach, the other more general and historical:

PicMonkey Collage

What could possibly be more interesting than the story of punctation!!!??? and epistolary history (Simon Garfield is always on my list)?.

Books punctuation

Books to the Letter border


What I want for Christmas

Well, it’s a bit too late to put in this request, but if I had been able to make a Christmas list of wants rather than chores and things to buy at the grocery store, these amazing “Christmas Pudding” dishes designed by Eric Ravilious would be on the top. I’ve never really appreciated either holiday china or twentieth-century china, but these dishes are just so striking, as are most of the pieces made by Ravilious in his short life (1903-1942). My favorite is the first plate with what looks like a flaming (steaming) Christmas pudding, which was accentuated by the Victoria & Albert Museum in the form of a Christmas card. I was looking for a traditional Christmas pudding recipe when I found this plate, and then my search was over–I put in an order with our new bakery because I was so distracted by these decidedly cooler (in more ways than one) versions. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Christmas Pudding Plate

Christmas Pudding Plate Card

Christmas Pudding Plate 2

Christmas Pudding Sauce

Christmas pudding Bowl

Wedgwood “Christmas Pudding” dishes designed by Eric Ravilious, 1938, collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


Verjuice

From sweet to sour, or tart.  Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had the most delicious pork scallopini at an Italian restaurant in Rhinebeck, New York. It had an interesting acidic flavor in its sauce–my stepmother identified it as vinegar, but after looking through a bunch of recipes, I’m pretty sure it was verjuice, a close relation with a long history. Verjuice (or verjus) just means “green juice”, and generally it refers to the juice of strained unripe apples or grapes, hence the tartness, but I’ve seen references to it in recipes dating way back–and most prominently in the late fourteenth-century household guide Le Ménagier de Paris and the Tudor cookbooks of Thomas Dawson. I always thought verjuice/verjus was just another name for vinegar (an incredibly important substance in the medieval and early modern eras–essential in both cooking and preservation), but upon closer reading, it’s clear that it is different, as this recipe from Le Ménagier makes clear:  SAUCE FOR RABBIT OR FOR RIVER-BIRD OR FOR WOOD-DOVE. Fry onions in good oil, or mince them and put to cook in the dripping-pan with beef drippings, and do not add verjuice nor vinegar until boiling: and then add half verjuice half wine and a little vinegar, and pass the spices. Then take half wine half verjuice and a little vinegar, and put all in the dripping pan under the rabbit, dove or river-bird; and when they are cooked, boil the sauce, and have some bits of toasted bread and put in with the bird.

Verjuice was (is) neither vinegar nor wine, but perhaps something in between, which is not my original observation. In this foodie world that we live in, it was only a matter of time before verjuice made a comeback, and the Australian chef Maggie Beer started producing it commercially a while ago. Just the other day, I was strolling through a shop in Newburyport, and there it was. So now I can try to make my own perfect scallopini–or maybe a traditional syllabub for our Christmas Day desert.

Verjuice 002

Verjuice Dawson

Verjuice BM

Noble Verjus at Wishbasket in Newburyport; Title page of the 1610 edition of Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswifes Jewel, which has many recipes calling for verjuice; “As sour as Verjuice”, George Hunt print c. 1825, British Museum.


Rhinebeck & Red Hook

Just back from a long celebratory Thanksgiving weekend in the Hudson River Valley, stuffed and tired. In between the festivities, I indulged in my usual activities:  looking around for interesting houses, and things. Almost as soon as you cross over the line from Massachusetts into New York the traditional domestic architecture is different, which never ceases to amaze me. You enter into a world of board and batten, center gable roofs, and little square second-story windows. Lots more pillars. I believe that the Dutch influence is much less evident on the eastern side of the Hudson River where my brother lives than the western, but I could be wrong: my favorite house of the weekend, which I’ll start with below, has a Dutch look to it along with lots of interesting outbuildings, all of which possess an irresistible air of abandonment–love the Gothic Revival windows casually propped up against the side of its barn.

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Some more Rhinebeck houses that caught my eye, beginning with the center-gabled ones that are everywhere in this area, and ending with a house that is in Red Hook, just to the north along route 9G: Rhinebeck was a bit crowded on Black Friday so I ventured up there.

Rhinebeck 138

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I have pledged to do all my Christmas shopping in downtown Salem, but I can look elsewhere, so I popped in all the shops of Rhinebeck and then drove up to less-precious Red Hook. Just a few things that caught my eye–still-trendy mismatched pattern plates from Spruce Design & Decor, embroidered pictures and cardboard “busts” (dressed for the holidays) from Paper Trail, and an assortment of creatures from Tivoli Mercantile.

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Rhinebeck 145

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